I Take Photos With Ugly Histograms and Don’t Get Snobby About Shooting Modes (And That’s Okay).

This post is mostly just an opinion piece (Read: ramble), as to break from my usual, rather clinical entries. I’m going to talk about histograms and about shooting modes as I use them, and I’m going to presuppose knowledge about Histograms and The Exposure Triangle,

I recently purchased an X100S as a second body for my wedding work. And while that’s another post entirely, I was interested that the new camera had an option to place a live histogram in the corner of the optical viewfinder. At first the idea seemed quite exciting, but after a week, and just before shooting the wedding for which I bought the camera, I turned the histogram off. Why? I think there’s a few reasons why. The first being that I was finding myself distracted by it. My D700 doesn’t have a histograms in the viewfinder but it does have a handy little exposure compensation meter at the bottom. In Manual modes this dial shows me what the camera is metering against 18% grey. In Priority modes it lets me dial in exposure compensation without leaving the viewfinder. Exposure compensation is just the amount of stops (or half or third stops) either side of 18% that I want the camera to over or under expose by.

By now you probably know that 18% grey across the board isn’t always, or even often, the way a photo should be exposed, with this in mind, here are almost all of the ways you can expose a photograph.

  1. Use an incident light meter or grey card.
  2. Just know.
  3. Vibe the highlights and shadows in your scene and compensate exposure accordingly.
  4. Use Zebra (or exposure peaking) to get as bright as you can be without overexposing, for a well balanced, left leaning exposure.
  5. Take a photo and look at the histogram to see if it’s well balanced.
  6. Look at the LCD and change accordingly (Sometimes called Chimping)

I’ve ranked these methods from most to least sensible, but will freely admit that I have used each of them at different times. Several can even be used in combination. But the majority of the time I find myself using method #3.

Method #3 benefits greatly from getting to know your camera, because every camera’s light meter behaves slightly differently. Essentially, a white wall, when your camera tries to balance it (always to 18% grey) the white wall will appear grey in a “Correct Exposure”. Likewise with a black wall. Knowing that your camera will do this lets you work out when to over and under expose to compensate for these conditions. Why I think I like this method shooting is because, with practise, it gets you looking at where light is and how intense it is. It takes some trial and error, but I think for training your eye it’s an excellent method.

But Anyway, Onto Shooting Modes.

A short disclaimer, I’ll be talking about shooting modes specifically in regards to how I use them. These are definitely not hard and fast rules for all types of photography, but simply guidelines for what I find works for me.

Aperture Priority _DSC5662

My cameras live on aperture priority. Using the exposure compensation method outlined earlier, I can quickly bounce a stop or so either end of 18% grey in order to get a solid overall exposure, and can adapt quickly to changing lighting conditions. I use natural light often and shift frequently between using the sun as a backlight, direct key, and shooting in open shade, and this mode keeps up with me. On my D700 I set the ISO, which I can work out based on the lighting conditions and my camera’s metering. I do this to keep on Native ISO’s. On my X100s, which I use mostly one-handed, I use auto ISO, The principle is the same with auto ISO, I set a threshold for the lowest allowable shutter speed, and the camera bumps up to the lowest ISO necessary to maintain that shutter speed.

Manual Mode_DSC2354

In manual mode the same exposure compensation bars show where your settings are in regards to 18% grey.

Some photographers say that they only ever expose manually, then use the reflected meter to zero out their exposure, this may be more consistent in steady and unchanging lighting conditions, but is essentially using the same technology employed in automatic modes without the convenience and speed of your camera doing the (identical) maths for you.

There are two instances for which I expose manually. The first is when using flash. One very simple way I use flash is to set my flash to a constant power appropriate for the lighting conditions, say quarter power, my shutter at 1/125th and my aperture at f/4. From here it’s easy to separate the light from the flash from the ambient light by controlling the ambient light with the shutter. If I need the ambient to be one stop darker I bring the shutter to 1/250th. If I need the flash one stop darker, I bring the aperture to f/2.8 and compensate ambient by bringing the shutter to 1/60th. And so forth.

The second instance where I use Manual exposure is for expansions. My expansions are usually not the first frames I shoot, nor are they ever particularly rushed, so my current (Somewhat clunky) method for expansions is to find a frame I’ve previously shot of the subject, and dial its exposure settings into manual. From there I can shoot as many frames as I need without worrying about the camera changing the exposure to try and compensate for a changing frame.

P(rofessional) Mode

Program Shift is essentially Auto, but if you don’t like the settings it throws up, you can turn a dial and get a different combination. I can only imagine in certain run and gun situations this sort of speed is necessary, but for my own shooting I can’t conceive a situation where I won’t have time to at least dial in an aperture. A pretentious part of me delighted upon finding out that my (at the time) new DSLR didn’t have any ‘sport’ or other such fancy automatic modes getting in the way, but for all of my purposes, Program is just another mode to scroll past between Aperture and Manual.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority, once again, likely has a lot of great uses outside of my photography. I occasionally drag the shutter, but when I do it’s often with a little trial and error over a few attempts, so I expose manually (I know this is hypocritical in light of what I’ve said about manual exposure).

Ugly Histograms

Why I’ve said all of this thus far is, I hope to show how light isn’t ever ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather whatever is appropriate for your photograph. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself using an in frame window as a key light and you’re going to overexpose two stops and still come up too dark. It’s in situations like this where zebra, light meters, even even Chimping comes in helpful. And it’s these very situations where the histogram goes a little haywire, clumping up way into the far right into the clipping range. It’ll appear overexposed because, well, it is. But that’s not a bad thing. Histograms can be a useful way to gage where your shadows and highlights are, but more often than not, my favourite photos have very ugly histograms. Here’s a few examples.

_DSC2808 _DSC8716

L_003861I’ll admit that all of these examples are working with extreme lighting conditions. But I like working in extreme lighting conditions. Of all forms of art, photography has probably been more radically democratised by digital technology than any other. So I think I enjoy working in circumstances which perhaps aren’t quite so readily quantifiable.

I guess after all this what I’m trying to say is that we, as photographers, probably get caught up pretty often with the inorganic details. I for one have spent way too much of my time perusing sites where the subject is a focus chart next to a bowl of fruit, and forget that it’s not about the camera or lens but rather what I put in front of it. If this article makes that shift just a little easier for someone, I think that’s worth something.

I’d better talk about metering modes while I’m here.

I’ve mentioned 18% grey a lot in this post, and I won’t go into too much detail when others have done it much better than I could. But I can’t really talk about reflective metering without giving a little bit of detail as to how that works. In short, when your camera’s exposure compensation is zeroed out, it tries to balance the scene to exactly 18% grey, which is 50% reflectivity. The two tools we have to control metering are the exposure compensation as mentioned earlier, and the area which is metered. There are three main metering modes which dictate the area used:

Matrix Metering: Modern cameras use a form of metering where the scene is divided into zones and each of these zones are evened out, and then the camera attempts to even out each of the zones as a whole in the final exposure.

Spot Metering: Unlike in Matrix Metering, Spot Metering averages only a very small zone around the focus point.

Centre Weighted Metering: Popular in many manual film cameras, but trumped in most cases by Spot and Matrix Metering, Centre Weighted metering averages out the entire scene, but adds extra weighting to the focus point. Essentially mid-point between each of the other modes.

So that’s it from me. This one ended up being a bit of a mouthful, but I hope it was helpful. If you’d like me to expand upon anything I mentioned here, just let me know.


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